The Perfect Dance of Birth Hormones
Our amazing birthing body working in total synchronicity!
“The hormones that make birth happen, also prepare us for breastfeeding and mother-infant attachment” – Dr Sarah Buckley
Our birthing hormones are critical to actually making labour and birth happen! In addition, our hormone systems prepare us in the final weeks, days and hours – for an efficient labour and birth, help with labour pain and stress, ensure a safe birth for our babies and, after it is all over, give us feelings of reward and pleasure as we meet our babies for the first time. But for all this to happen in perfect harmony – to work the most efficiently – the birthing hormones need to work together in perfect synchronicity.
So how do we achieve this perfect dance?
Our birthing hormones are made up of 4 main hormones
- Oxytocin – the Love hormone
- Endorphins – the Pain-relieving hormone
- Catecholamines – the Stress hormones – the fight or flight hormones
- Prolactin – the Mothering hormone that facilitates breastfeeding
When we are pregnant we need to choose a kind, caring healthcare professional who will create a supportive environment for pregnancy and birth. They need to answer our questions, allay our fears, be supportive and encouraging, increasing our confidence in our own ability to grow a baby and birth it.
It is important to attend childbirth education classes where our increase of correct knowledge can allay our fears and give us the confidence to trust our bodies to birth correctly. As well as to understand this perfect dance of birthing hormones in order to achieve the best outcome for mom and baby at birth.
This kind supportive environment will decrease pregnancy stress which decreases the release of our catecholamines – our stress hormones – which cause us to fight or take flight.
Exercise during pregnancy – this prepares our body for labour as well as generating higher levels of endorphins which will lead to a shorter, less painful labour. Research also shows that regular exercise decreases the risk of needing a caesarean.
Slight increases of catecholamines in the last few weeks and days of pregnancy causes the foetal lungs to mature preparing the baby’s lungs for breathing after birth as well as maturing other foetal organs.
The hormones of mom and baby are interrelated and work in synchrony together to get the best outcomes for both mom and baby. What mom is exposed to during her pregnancy, labour and birth will influence what effects she experiences during this time, which goes on to effect the hormonal balance of the foetus and baby. They are totally interconnected – mom and baby can’t be separated. They promote and inhibit each other’s hormonal activity and dance.
Let labour start on its own.
Birth in a safe, private, relaxed atmosphere to keep your stress hormones and the balance of hormones dancing perfectly.
Onset of labour – increases in oxytocin and prostaglandins will cause the uterus to supply effective contractions in labour.
Endorphins prepare for pain relieving mechanisms
Increase in oxytocin prepares for breastfeeding and maternal-infant bonding
Maintain a calm, low stress, supportive environment in labour so labour isn’t slowed down by the wrong hormones interacting – lowers catecholamines.
Lower levels of stress by labour support – mom able to cope with pain, not need an epidural
Lower levels of stress – promotes uterine blood supply, improving foetal circulation and newborn well-being
Eustress – healthy levels of stress – slightly increased catecholamines let mom remain alert and focused during labour. Short term foetal catecholamines also increase in late labour – protects foetus from hypoxia (low levels of oxygen) and promotes transition of breathing, temperature and glucose levels. Also promotes newborn alertness which benefits breastfeeding and maternal-infant bonding. Too much stress – high catecholamine levels – cause blood to flow away from uterus and baby – flight response – causes labour to stall. Moms labour often stalls as she is admitted to hospital in this unfamiliar stressful environment
Use your relaxation techniques taught to you at childbirth education classes to keep you relaxed and with low stress levels. Relaxation, guided imagery and massage are wonderful tools to help keep this balance in place. Use non-pharmacological pain relieving methods like water, positions, massage – this promotes the release of endorphins – the natural pain relieving hormones.
Movement and upright posture enhance endorphin release
In late labour – Oxytocin peaks and assists with the pushing stage of labour
If stressed, the catecholamines will disrupt labour.
Stressful labour – increase of catecholamines – prolongs labour – foetal hypoxia – increases mortality and morbidity. Slow labour and foetal hypoxia are common reasons for labour interventions
Cascade of interventions
Mom has an epidural – Mom’s oxytocin levels drops – leads to synthetic Pitocin being given to counteract this effect. Prolonged use of Pitocin blocks the real oxytocin receptors and increases the mom’s risk of postpartum haemorrhage (excessive bleeding after birth).
Women who give birth vaginally release oxytocin more effectively and sooner than a woman who had a caesarean
Skin to skin
Promote skin to skin – increases mom and baby oxytocin levels – supports breastfeeding success – enhances maternal-infant bonding – decreases risk of postpartum haemorrhage.
Following birth, stress levels decrease – catecholamine levels decrease – increases in oxytocin and endorphins – the calming and rewarding hormones – mom views birth as more positive
Support the early initiation of breastfeeding, which also promotes the release of calming, rewarding hormones for mom and baby. The first breastfeed calms the baby after being born
Prolactin levels increase – facilitates breastfeeding
Foetal oxytocin increases with skin to skin – promotes a calm and alert state – facilitates breastfeeding
Uninterrupted skin to skin – increases oxytocin and prolactin – promotes breastfeeding
Skin to skin promotes moms vasodilation (blood vessels opening) – warms the infant
Skin to skin reduces newborn stress and stress hormones – improves energy consumption, glucose levels, breathing, crying and breastfeeding behaviours
Ongoing skin to skin during those early days and weeks benefits moms mental health via oxytocin and prolactin peaks – both stress reducing
When we interact with our babies – hold, carry, touch, talk to, breastfeeding – we are rewarded with the release of oxytocin, beta-endorphins and prolactin, which give us pleasure by activating the dopamine-related pleasure centres in our brains. The more pleasure we get from interacting, the more we want to be with our babies, which benefits their health and development.
Encourage them to dance
The Dance of Normal Birth
- Learn the steps – birth preparation – how the body works, understanding labour
- Practice – imprinting coping strategies, visualization, affirmation, confidence building, trusting the system
- Assign support roles – create a birth dance friendly environment , choose dance instructors – the role of support in normal birth, doulas, female support (bringing oxytocin to the birth), preparing or holding the space, carrying and lifting
- Labouring (Dancing) – accepting the sensations of birth, feeling the rhythm, moving to the beat of labour, using the space, finding the path – relaxation, rhythm and ritual, preserving the natural hormonal benefits.
Our Amazing Birthing Body – the Perfect Dance of Birthing Hormones
The Love Hormone
What does oxytocin do?
- Decreases blood pressure
- Decreases stress hormones; causing the tend and befriend effect
- Fewer aches and pains (increased pain threshold)
- Sleepiness, feeling of laziness – not wanting to jump up and do something
- Reduces muscle tension, relaxing (less circulation to muscles)
- Calming, less upset about big life’s problems, sense of contentment, peaceful
- Causes more curiosity and a sense of closeness to the people nearby
- Makes women more courageous
- Increases openness to touch
- Increases digestion and fat absorption and storage. At first oxytocin reduces our appetite but when present over a long period of time, increases appetite
- Increased skin and mucous membrane circulation
- Causes blood vessels on the frontal side of body to dilate, thus rosy cheeks and warm chests during labour, nursing, or even just snuggling an infant
- Facilitates learning
- Promotes wound healing (twice as fast)
What stimulates the release of oxytocin?
- Stroking – especially rhythmic touch, therapeutic massage, sexual stimulation
- Descent of the foetus (pressure against cervix, vagina and the perineal floor)
- Good food
- Companionship (positive emotional contact, doulas and being with women)
- Quiet and low light
- Positive thoughts, associations and memories, meditation and visualization
- Suckling and baby kneading the breast
- Pleasant smells and even sounds – as you smell your newborn baby – you have a rush of oxytocin released
- The presence of oxytocin. In other words we produce more oxytocin when there is oxytocin present!
Oxytocin and Nursing
- Controls the expulsion of milk (up to 80% of milk not available if this doesn’t occur)
- Stimulates milk production
- Redistributes heat in the mother’s body to her front to warm her nursing young (often have rosy cheeks when done nursing – both mom and baby)
- Helps the body release stored nutrients in order to make milk
- Reduces blood pressure and stress hormones in the mother – breastfeeding mothers have lower stress hormone levels than bottle feeding mothers
- Creates calm in most nursing women
- Makes mother more interested in close relationships (probably so she’ll have help in caring for her child)
- Induces social memory and calmness in the infant
- May have some role in the release of dopamine and endorphins which gets us hooked on our babies, and sometimes hooked on nursing
- In combo with Prolactin, fosters love of infant
- Helps maintain Prolactin levels in the presence of stress
Oxytocin and Touch
- Lower BP
- Higher pain threshold
- Lower level of stress hormones
- Increased growth in both young and adult animals
- Increased social interaction
- Improved learning
- “Feel” better
- “Psychological” touch can result in the same effects
- Effect is sustained with repetition of touch/40 beats per minute
- Ventral stroking the most effective – HUGS. Women whose partner hugged them more have higher oxytocin levels and were happier.
- Dairy farmers get 25% more milk if cows are brushed and petted during milking.
- Eating is considered an “internal massage” as the GI tract is made from the same germ layer as our skin and nerves.
- Exercise/movement also results in the release of oxytocin (in the brain it results in calming and in the blood stream stimulates endorphin release—runners high).
Oxytocin and Relationships
- Creates emotional bonds
- Makes us seek out social affiliations, most often with other women, although plays a part in choosing and staying connected to male partners as well
- Increases our willingness to trust
- Good relationships reduce blood pressure and heart rate, cholesterol levels – lengthen life spans.
Men and Oxytocin
- Like mothers, dads get a rush of oxytocin when they see their babies for the first time. Men’s testosterone levels tend to plummet (for a couple of months anyway) after they become dads for the first time. Even more intriguingly, some men start to produce extra oestrogen, perhaps the clearest sign of the transformative power of fatherhood. Oestrogen helps make the brain more sensitive to oxytocin, helping dads become more loving and attentive.
- Dads oxytocin levels increase throughout their partner’s pregnancy and increase his interest in physical, but not necessarily sexual, contact with the mother.
- Prolactin also rises in dads throughout pregnancy but rises are sharper after parenting the new infant and makes the father feel protective and a little less interested in sex.
Oxytocin is released by stimulation of sensory nerves – as a new baby crawls on its mothers chest so this activates sensory cells in the skin to produce more oxytocin
The progress of labour is inhibited by
- Anxiety and fear
- Decreased release of oxytocin
The progress of labour is stimulated by
- Increased release of oxytocin
Changes in moms due to oxytocin release
- Decreased levels of anxiety
- Decreased detachment
- Increased social interaction
- Facilitated bonding
- Decreased sensation of pain
- Changed memory of labour – more positive memories
If mother and baby are separated after birth, the positive effects on other-baby interaction and the anti-stress effects normally caused by skin-to-skin contact after birth will not develop
Oxytocin released during labour is needed for sensitivity of the skin for further release of oxytocin
Consequences of medical interventions
- Decreased oxytocin levels
- Decreased prolactin levels
- Inhibition of milk ejection
- Decreased milk production
- Increased stress levels
- Decreased interaction between mother and baby
- Interference with bonding and attachment
The best way to provide oxytocin is by stimulation of natural oxytocin release
- Skin to skin contact
- Social support